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Posts Tagged ‘Southern gothic’

 

I needed a night light after reading Meg Gardiner’s scary good UNSUB (Dutton, digital galley), which was inspired by the infamous Zodiac Killer. This “unknown subject” was dubbed the Prophet when he first terrorized the Bay Area 20 years ago with a series of grisly killings, mutilating 11 corpses with the sign of Mercury. When he vanished before being caught, he also claimed Detective Mack Hendrix’s sanity and career. But now, when new bodies with the Mercury sign are discovered in an Alameda cornfield, Mack’s daughter Caitlin gets herself reassigned from narcotics to homicide. She may be the rookie on the squad investigating the case, but her resolve and research prove invaluable when the Prophet strikes again. Or is this a copycat? The narrative moves swiftly as the detectives try to discern the cryptic clues left for them, and it’s to Gardiner’s credit that the fast pace continues once a pattern emerges. Caitlin may know the Prophet’s playbook, but that doesn’t stop the killer from toying with her and those closest to her. The countdown to the finale is a nail-biting nightmare. There will be blood. But also a sequel, so keep the lights on.

Young men for whom money has never been a problem discover otherwise in Christopher Bollen’s silky The Destroyers (HarperCollins, digital galley), which brings to mind both Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels and Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. A shocking prologue kicks off the action, but then Bollen moves into a more digressive mode. Disinherited by his father, Ian Bledsoe skips out on the funeral, helps himself to some family funds and flees to the Greek island of Patmos, where his childhood pal Charlie Konstantinou, heir to a shipping fortune, is living with his movie star girlfriend and other hangers-on. It takes Ian a few hedonistic days in the hot glare to realize Patmos has its dark side: A monastery whose monks hold silent sway over the tourists and pilgrims; religious hippies on the beach who take in wide-eyed wanderers; the blackened remains of a taverna near the ferry dock, where a springtime bomb killed two Americans. Charlie hires Ian as an assistant for his island-hopping yacht business, then disappears. Many people come looking for Charlie, including his older brother. There’s a fatal accident, and then a murder. The police take more than a polite interest. Ian reflects on his shared past with Charlie and the boyhood game where they concocted perilous scenarios and risky escape plans. He is distracted by his college girlfriend, on vacation in Patmos before law school. He still can’t find Charlie. Look for The Destroyers to be a movie.

Looking for a tricksy plot and an unreliable narrator, something like Gillian Flynn or Megan Miranda might cook up? Then check out Riley Sager’s Final Girls (Dutton, digital galley), a well-constructed thriller whose title comes from the old horror film trope where one girl survives a mass murder. In Sager’s tale, Quincy Carpenter has rejected the tabloid moniker and moved on in the years since her college friends were massacred in a cabin in the Pennsylvania woods. She has a successful baking blog and a live-in lawyer boyfriend, and it helps that she has almost no memory of the murders and appeases her survivors’ guilt by regularly checking in with Coop, the cop who saved her life. But then another Final Girl — Lisa, who survived a sorority house attack — is found dead, believed to be a suicide — and Samantha Boyd, who fought off a mass murderer in a Florida motel, shows up at Quincy’s door. As troubled Sam provokes Quincy to tap into her buried anger and memories, interspersed chapters flash back to the fateful Pine Cottage weekend, generating menace and suspense. Readers may think they know where the story is headed, and maybe they do, but they also may be in for a shock. Quincy sure is.

The first buried secret that propels Fiona Barton’s  new novel of domestic intrigue, The Child (Berkley, digital galley), is an infant’s skeleton found by workers tearing down London houses. Barton quickly connects four women to the old bones and then alternates perspective among them. Kate Roberts is the seasoned reporter who writes the initial story, “Who is the Building Site Baby?” Emma is the book editor who struggles with depression and who used to live on the street where the bones were found. Both she and her narcissistic mother Jude, still looking for Mr. Right after all these years, see the story, as does Angela, whose baby was stolen from the maternity ward years ago. She’s convinced the skeleton is her daughter, Alice, but she’s been wrong before. As Kate diligently tracks clues to the baby’s identity, more secrets surface, leading to the book’s other question: How long can you live with a lie that has shaped your life in untoward ways? Like Barton’s previous novel The Widow, this one offers interesting answers.

Remember when “active shooter” wasn’t part of our everyday vocabulary? I didn’t think I was up for Laurie R. King’s new standalone Lockdown (Bantam, digital galley), no matter how timely, having seen way too much of the real thing on the evening news. But King delivers more than a tick-tock countdown of Career Day at Guadalupe Middle School, which begins with the high hopes principal Linda McDonald has for her diverse student body. The school bubbles with “hormones and suppressed rage, with threats all around it,” and is currently troubled by a murder trial involving student gang members and the mysterious disappearance of a seventh-grade girl. Readers are aware of a more ominous hazard headed toward the school — a heavily armed white van — but not who is driving. As the minutes go by, King switches among many perspectives — various students and teachers, the principal, her husband, the school janitor, a cop on duty at the school, parents preparing to participate in career day — and a number of backstories emerge. Perhaps there are too many, given that several could have made books on their own. Still, by the time the action really begins, readers are invested in a handful of sympathetic characters who may not survive lockdown.

Hallie Ephron goes Southern Gothic in You’ll Never Know, Dear (William Morrow, advance copy), disguising the Lowcountry South Carolina town of Beaufort as Bonsecours, where the Spanish moss-draped live oaks hide dark secrets from the past. The reappearance of a homemade porcelain doll may hold the clue to the 40-year-old kidnapping of a 4-year-old girl. Her mother, dollmaker Miss Sorrell, has always believed Janey would come home, and when Janey’s long-lost doll turns up, she just knows Janey will be next. Her daughter Lis and her next-door neighbor and fellow dollmaker Evelyn, are not so easily convinced, but then a kiln explosion sends Miss Sorrell and Lis to the hospital, and Lis’s grad student daughter Vanessa returns home to help out and do some detecting. Coincidences pile on, complications ensue, plausibility departs. Oh, dear.

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blackrabbitA spooky old house. Skeletons in the attic. Ghosts on the stairs. Two first-time novelists have gone gothic. I am so there.

Two young women’s family secrets intertwine in Eve Chase’s atmospheric Black Rabbit Hall (Putnam, digital galley). London schoolteacher Lorna Dunaway wants to hold her upcoming wedding in picturesque Cornwall, where her family vacationed when she was a child. Pencraw Hall calls out to her from a website, but its reality is altogether different. Black Rabbit Hall, as the locals call it, is sadly neglected, with ivy tugging on its crumbling walls, flowers pushing up from the floorboards, rainwater dripping from holes in the ceiling. Still, the elderly woman hovering over the premises tells Lorna it could be a charming venue and suggests she stay a couple of days.

Readers already know via an alternating storyline that Black Rabbit Hall was once the happy summer home of the Alton family. But in 1969, mother Nancy was killed in a riding accident, and the magical, carefree days ended for her grief-stricken husband and four children. Teenage Amber tries to cope with her angry twin Toby, young rascal Barney and baby sister Kitty, but things worsen when her father remarries an old friend Caroline, with a smile “like a paper cut” and an enigmatic teenage son Lucian. The stage is set for further tragedy, including forbidden love and treacherous lies.

Chase’s writing is seductive as she moves between Lorna learning about Black Rabbit Hall’s history and Amber living that very past. That the two story lines will merge is inevitable, but Chase keeps readers in suspense. If you like Kate Morton’s novels, book a trip to Black Rabbit Hall.

evangelineI have some reservations about Hester Young’s busy The Gates of Evangeline (Putnam, review copy), which oozes Southern gothic with its Louisiana plantation, abandoned sugar mill and ominous, gator-filled swamps. Narrator Charlotte “Charlie” Cates is a divorced journalist who, after the death of her four-year-old son from a brain aneurysm, has disturbing, strangely prescient dreams about young children needing her help. One such dream features a little boy in a boat adrift on a bayou, and when she arrives at the historic Evangeline plantation to research a true crime book, Charlie immediately recognizes the place. Could the little boy be young Gabriel Deveau, who disappeared from his bedroom in 1982 and was never seen again? Charlie  immediately plunges into the family mystery, asking questions of ailing matriarch Hettie, secretive son Andre, his conniving sisters, and various members of the household — the too-handsome estate manager, the friendly young cook, and a visiting landscaper. She makes friends with the local sheriff and his wife, who are also grieving a child’s loss.

All this is well and good, and Young makes Charlie’s visions believable. Her often irrational behavior is another thing. She falls into bed and in love with a man with whom she has little in common and knows little about. She tackles witnesses head-on, leaps to conclusions and walks into traps. She’s also an elitist snob, constantly comparing her Northern lifestyle and sophistication to the uneducated Southern rubes she’s dealing with. This is supposed to be the first book in a trilogy, but I’m not sure I’d read a second unless Young quits condescending to readers and her characters with unneeded snippets of  “dem and dose” dialect. Shame on her and her editor.

Open Book: I want to note that The Gates of Evangeline is a winter selection of the She Reads online book club, http://www.shereads.org. The web site is a great resource for readers and features reviews, author interviews, Q & As,  and recommendations in a blog-post format. I’ve been an e-mail subscriber for five years now, receiving the posts by founders and authors Ariel Lawhon and Marybeth Whalen several times a week. I also recently joined the She Reads Blog Network, a group of book bloggers who review She Reads selections on their individual sites from time to time and link to She Reads. It’s a pleasure to be a part of this literary community. Check it out!

 

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lovesickCrimes of the heart. Sins of the flesh. The four novellas collected in James Driggers’ evocative Lovesick (Kensington, review copy) are linked by the fictional  South Carolina town of Morris, located somewhere near Florence, an hour or so north of Myrtle Beach, and firmly in the territory of Southern Gothic. Sure, it’s the land of Faulkner, O’Conner and Crews, as well as a host of younger writers. Driggers is right at home.

“Butcher, the Baker,” set in the 1930s, features a black ex-con whose extraordinary baking talents have society ladies passing off his treats as their own. When war widow Virginia Yeager offers to give him credit for a cake, Butcher proposes they secretly partner to enter the Mystic White Flour baking contest in Atlanta. Wearing a big white hat and armed with Butcher’s recipe for Angel Biscuits, Virginia makes quite an impression on the racist company owner, but another competitor’s threat to expose her leads to blood and betrayal. “The Brambles,” set in the 1950s, puts a dark and unexpected spin on Arsenic and Old Lace as two middle-aged sisters marry for money and murder. “Sandra and the Snake Handlers” focuses on a recent widow whose obsession with a television evangelist has tragic consequences. Then there’s the contemporary tabloid tale, “M.R. Vale,” in which a gay florist confesses how he wound up in motel room with a dead body and a brutish mechanic. Driggers’ small-town South of secret scandals, stained-glass windows and judgmental neighbors proves both familiar and strange.

sewingTupelo Honey Lee, the appealing narrator of Darlyn Finch Kuhn’s first novel Sewing Holes (Twisted Road, review copy), is the first to admit she’s not as sweet as her name. Honey can’t help but say what she thinks, and her forthrightness can get her into trouble. But candor is a gift for a storyteller like Honey as she recounts her eventful coming-of-age in 1970s Jacksonville, where the South of bait shops and home-ec classes is giving way to suburbs and the wider world.

Honey’s heroines are Joan of Arc and Lois Lane as she copes with a troubled and troublesome family. Her chronically ill father and her unhappy mother are often at odds; her older brother becomes a war resister; her good-for-nothing uncle can’t support her young cousins, one of whom shares Honey’s room and her mother’s attention. As Honey’s growing-up years are marked by love and loss, faith and forgiveness, a bookish, burdened girl becomes a thoughtful, compassionate woman. You can picture her telling you these stories over a glass of sweet tea on the porch, stitching one memory to another.

sunshineThe nameless narrator of M.O. Walsh’s lush first novel, My Sunshine Away (Penguin, library hardcover) looks back to the pivotal summer of 1989 when he was a gawky 14-year-old enjoying a free-range childhood of bikes and backyards in sultry Baton Rouge. He secretly spies on neighbor Lindy Simpson, a pretty 15-year-old track star, and casts himself as the hero in her life instead of the dorky pal. Then Lindy is sexually assaulted, and her unknown assailant escapes into  the evening shadows. The narrator is one of several initial suspects and, as weeks go by with no arrest, he becomes determined to solve the crime and win Lindy’s heart. That his efforts go awry and cause pain to those he loves causes an aching regret that follows him into adulthood. A family tragedy also complicates his memories, and the wish to exorcise the ghosts results in a novel with the feel of a memoir.

“I imagine that many children in South Louisiana have stories similar to this one, and when they grow up, they move out into the world and tell them.”

Perhaps, but one doubts that those coming-of-age stories so effectively mix mystery and memory.

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moonriseLast night I went in search of Manderley. Or rather, one of my  copies of Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel Rebecca, which is 75 this year. I have both a paperback with a scarlet R emblazoned on the front and an old blue hardcover purchased at a long-ago library sale. It’s a book I come back to again and again, and I’ve promised myself another a reread as soon as I finish writing about some more recent gothic tales.

Cassandra King’s Moonrise (Maiden Lane Press, digital galley) is a fond homage to du Maurier’s tale, with just enough plot parallels to remind readers of Rebecca and enough differences to make it a good stand-alone. The title refers to a mountainside mansion in Highlands, N.C., with a nocturnal garden that glows under the full moon. It’s also the summer home of charismatic newsman Emmet Justice’s first wife, Rosalyn, killed in a highway accident less than a year ago. Her close friends and grown daughter are still mourning her death when Emmet returns to Moonrise with his second wife, Florida divorcee and TV cooking show host Helen Honeycutt.

Some mystery surrounds Rosalyn’s death and some oddities suggest Moonrise may be haunted, but King is more interested in the complexities of long friendships and second marriages tested by jealousy, obsession and betrayal. She ups the tension by rotating the present-tense narrative among three women: Helen, living in Rosalyn’s house in Rosalyn’s shadow; Willa, the local property manager on whom the friends rely; and Tansy, a sharply observant Atlanta socialite who may or may not be on Helen’s side. Overall, Moonrise reminded me less of Rebecca and more of Anne Rivers Siddons’ novel Islands, another good Southern gothic.

eloiseJudy Finnigan’s first novel Eloise (Redhook, digital galley) is set in du Maurier’s atmospheric Cornwall and sounds a bit like Rebecca, at least in the beginning: “Yesterday I almost saw her. . .She wasn’t there, of course. How could she be, when I had seen her lying in her coffin just two weeks ago, two days before she was buried…”

Cathy is grieving her best friend Eloise, whose death from breast cancer has sent her reeling. Because she’s also recovering from a nervous breakdown, Cathy has trouble convincing people, primarily her psychiatrist husband, that Eloise is also haunting her dreams, begging her to protect her twin daughters from their father. OK, Eloise took some secrets to her grave that Cathy begins to uncover, but the many allusions to du Maurier and Wuthering Heights can’t plug the holes in the plot.

tidesHannah Richell’s  The House of Tides (Grand Central Publishing, digital galley) is more Rosamund Pilcher family saga than du Maurier gothic, but it does feature a shabby mansion on the Dorset coast. The Tides family has a love/hate relationship with Clifftops, especially Helen, a classics professor who lets her husband talk her into moving to his family’s ancestral pile. When tragedy strikes, family members fly apart, taking their secrets with them. A decade later, younger sister Dora returns to Clifftops, seeking to reconcile with her mother and with older sister Cassie. Richell’s tale moves back and forth in time, dropping clues as to what really happened that day on the beach.

darkwaterAfter my mom introduced me to Rebecca and du Maurier’s other works when I was about 11 or 12, I became hooked on the romantic suspense novels of Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt and Dorothy Eden. I still have all my Stewarts — mostly paperbacks — but the box with all the others disappeared years ago when someone broke into my apartment storage locker. When Sourcebooks started rereleasing Holt in paperback a couple of years ago, I quickly pounced on Mistress of Mellyn and Bride of Pendorric. Now they’re coming out as e-books, and I just reread The Shivering Sands. Similarly, Dorothy Eden’s going digital and so far I’ve picked up old favorites Ravenscroft (Open Road  Media, purchased e-book) and Darkwater (Open Road Media, digital galley) and relished their gothic delights. I also found an Eden I’d missed, Waiting for Willa (Open Road Media, digital galley), which turned out to be a 20th-century mystery set in the trendy crime-book country of Sweden. Lots of chills and even a mysterious mansion. Which reminds me: I’m off to Manderley.

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